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Remarriage: Keeping Your Kids Out of Conflict

QUESTION: My ex-husband and I do not get along at all. He absolutely refuses to speak to me and he says things like "we're living off my sweat" in front of the kids. My husband and I try not to say anything negative in front of our kids, but they can see what's happening. How can I get my ex to understand that refusing to speak to me since the divorce and being cruel hurts no one but the children?

ANSWER: The remarriage of an ex-spouse is a predictable stressor in the aftermath of divorce. It is a clear and undeniable marker to your ex-husband that you have moved on. Any fantasy of reconciliation is quashed. This event often resurfaces old grief about the loss of the family unit and ushers in a renewed period of mourning, but this is no excuse for putting children in the middle of your conflict.

You have enjoyed a relatively smooth adjustment to initial separation and divorce, judged by your ex-husband's willingness to exceed the granted amount of child support. Clearly he is feeling hurt and possibly left out as he imagines his family going on without him. Perhaps he fears that he will be replaced by a new father figure or in some way lose the relationship he now has with his children. Though these thoughts and imaginings can be quite painful to him, his inability to contain his feelings can result in actions which can be harmful to his children.

Do not expect your husband to "do" or "give" more than is required right now. Encourage his contact with his children and support their relationship to their biological father as inviolate. In other words, make it clear through your words and actions that your children's father is not being replaced in any way by their stepfather. You may be adding to the tension in your interactions by overreacting to your ex-spouse's withdrawal from doing extra. Examine your own expectations, and adjust them accordingly.

Since you have enjoyed a more cooperative relationship in the past, it is likely that your ex-spouse will adjust to your remarriage and equanimity will return to your relationship. In the meantime, consider writing your ex-husband a letter about the changes you have noticed and your concern for the effects his behavior might be having on the children. But be cautious in your tone. Express appreciation for his past generosity and sadness that this has changed. Do not blame him or express anger that he is not as forthcoming in his generosity as in the past. Instead, focus on keeping your children out of the path of his anger and resentment. Ask him to refrain from commenting on child support to the children. Express that you know it must be difficult for him but that it is critical to act in the best interests of the children in keeping them safe from feeling to "blame" for their emotional or financial needs.

Acknowledge to your ex spouse that the children will be experiencing alot of adjustments to your remarriage and that you want to assure him that you see his relationship to his children as important and unchanged. Let him know that you want to do everything you can to stabilize their lives during this transition. Recognize that your remarriage will necessitate adjustments for the children and you need his help to remain as emotionally consistent as possible in their lives. Recognize his importance to them. In this context, bring up your concern that they could get caught up in negative emotional reactions that could arise between the two of you, since you have remarried.

Reinforce your intent to maintain the quality of your parenting relationship with your ex spouse. If you feel comfortable doing so, invite him to discuss (with you and/ or a mediator), concerns he might have about this transition. Maintain your boundaries around your life and your remarriage, but respect his feelings and reach beyond your resentment to show your good will and intent related to parenting issues.

Research repeatedly concludes that your best insurance in assisting your children through divorce is to keep them out of the middle of your conflicts. Likewise, the greatest predictor of maladjustment in children following divorce occurs when they are frequent victims of a parent's anger at his or her ex-spouse.

Your remarriage is a new phase which precipitates change in family relationships and a resurgence of the past. You have every right to move on in your life. But be careful that you do not fuel the problem by responding to your ex's anger in like kind. Refrain from getting embroiled in these anger games. Take the high ground. Work to separate your emotional response to your ex's reaction to your remarriage from your children's welfare. Seek solutions, not retaliations. Accept the challenge to be the voice of reason rather than reaction in getting your parenting relationship back on track. If you succeed, your children will benefit!

Gayle Peterson, MSSW, LCSW, PhD is a family therapist specializing in prenatal and family development. She trains professionals in her prenatal counseling model and is the author of An Easier Childbirth, Birthing Normally and her latest book, Making Healthy Families. Her articles on family relationships appear in professional journals and she is an oft-quoted expert in popular magazines such as Woman's Day, Mothering and Parenting. . She also serves on the advisory board for Fit Pregnancy Magazine.

Dr. Gayle Peterson has written family columns for ParentsPlace.com, igrandparents.com, the Bay Area's Parents Press newspaper and the Sierra Foothill's Family Post. She has also hosted a live radio show, "Ask Dr. Gayle" on www.ivillage.com, answering questions on family relationships and parenting. Dr. Peterson has appeared on numerous radio and television interviews including Canadian broadcast as a family and communications expert in the twelve part documentary "Baby's Best Chance". She is former clinical director of the Holistic Health Program at John F. Kennedy University in Northern California and adjunct faculty at the California Institute for Integral Studies in San Francisco. A national public speaker on women's issues and family development, Gayle Peterson practices psychotherapy in Oakland, California and Nevada City, California. She also offers an online certification training program in Prenatal Counseling and Birth Hypnosis. Gayle and is a wife, mother of two adult children and a proud grandmother of three lively boys and one sparkling granddaughter..

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